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Hockey: Every game counts as championships come closer

Sam Gans | Thursday, February 2, 2012

As No. 6 Notre Dame enters the final month of its regular season, the quest for a CCHA championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament field make each series crucial. A two-game series in the Compton Family Ice Arena this weekend against Bowling Green will play a big part in whether those two goals are met.

The Irish (15-10-3, 10-7-3-0 CCHA) currently sit in sixth place in the CCHA standings, but are just four points behind conference-leader Ferris State with eight games remaining. Although six points in the standings seems a strong possibility this weekend with the last-place Falcons (8-15-5, 3-14-4-3) coming to town, Irish coach Jeff Jackson is not looking past Bowling Green, who has lost only two of its last six games. During that stretch, the Falcons won at Alaska, beat No. 16 Western Michigan and tied Ohio State twice, picking up the shootout win against the Buckeyes in both contests.

“[Falcons coach] Chris [Bergeron] has done a nice job and I think they’re starting to come on a little bit,” Jackson said. “They play hard and they execute their system well. They’re hard to play against and that’s a sign of a team that’s going in the right direction.”

The Irish return home following a split at Alaska last weekend.

Sophomore goaltender Steven Summerhays was given last Friday’s start after two strong outings the previous weekend against Michigan. The Nanooks shelled Summerhays early, scoring four goals on their first 11 shots in a 6-3 Alaska win. Junior netminder Mike Johnson started Saturday and made 15 saves in a 4-2 victory. Jackson did not indicate which goaltender would start tonight against the Falcons.

The Irish will also hold “Lefty Fest” this weekend to celebrate the life of long-time Irish hockey coach Charles “Lefty” Smith, with many of Lefty’s family, friends and former players in attendance to honor his memory. Smith passed away Jan. 3 from natural causes at the age of 81.

“It’s going to be a nice opportunity for our team to pay tribute to his legacy and Lefty’s family that will be here since we didn’t have the opportunity when he passed to attend the funeral, because we were on our way to Minnesota at that exact time,” Jackson said. “So it will be a nice opportunity for our team to be able to pass their respects on to the family, which I think is important because our guys, they know who Lefty was and they had a relationship with him.”

While the Irish will pay tribute to Smith this weekend, there is also business to be taken care of on the ice.

In addition to the tight CCHA race, Notre Dame, who swept the Falcons at Bowling Green in a two-game series in October, is currently No. 12 in the PairWise Rankings, the formula used to determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field. The five conference tournament winners receive automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, with at-large berths going to the best 11 teams in the PairWise who did not win their conference tournament.

“[The players] know what’s going on. I don’t have to get into it in too much detail with them, they know,” Jackson said. “They know it’s crunch time. It’s getting crunchier by the game and we have to play every game the same way. We have to have that underdog mindset and play with that passion every game because it’s not about the opponent. I don’t care who it is or where we’re playing, it’s about us.

“If we’re playing our optimal level, if we’re playing our A-game, we’ve seen what this team is capable of. The thing is finding a way to get them to play the A-game every night. We still have time, but time’s running out.”

The Irish will skate in a critical series tonight and Saturday against Bowling Green. The puck will drop at 7:05 p.m. for both games in the Compton Family Ice Arena.